Glory to Jesus Christ! As we continue our Bible study on Amos as part of a larger series covering the books not included in our Byzantine Lectionary, I want to summarize where we’ve gone in this book before we get to our new passages. Remember that Amos is a shepherd in the Northern Kingdom of Israel, who has said quite a few harsh things over the sins of not just Israel itself but many surrounding nations. The judgments began with the other nations and the condemnation increased and drew into closer focus as it turned to Amos’ native land, in an almost inverted order of our Lord’s Commission to evangelize in Acts. In Acts, Christ began with good news for Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8). The bad news in Amos starts in enemy countries of Israel and then progresses to Israel itself, which was our focus in chapters 1-3. In those verses there are so many references to the ways that the peoples of the world have committed crimes against both God and their brothers and sisters. The description of the atrocities was at times quite shocking, pointing us to the fact that God is not only just, he also responds to iniquity by stopping the sin of the nations and Israel herself via multiple judgments. But these judgments don’t seem to be working and as such they multiply with words of exile prophesied against Israel in chapter 4. The prophecies of exile continue into chapter 4, and there is no sign of relenting. Chapter 5 begins with Amos letting us know that he is going to utter a lament. Most of what we have heard up until now were stern words of admonition and impending doom. The human element of the sadness of this situation is made clear in that it is described as a lament. Don’t let the sadness pass you by. Instead, let the text speak to you of this very human reality where Prophets are those who may utter dire words of prophecy but in their humanity and commonality with those who are judged (when this is the case, unlike Jonah) is something that means they will suffer as a result of their ministerial calling.
As a fellow Israelite, Amos is lamenting. But as we move towards the verses for today we could argue that the real voice is not necessarily this shepherd prophet. Instead, I believe that we can see that God himself is joining in the lament. Better yet, we could say that God is the principal person to lament at this time of judgment. Let’s look at our passage for today and read the first verses, 18-20. First, Amos utters a woe against the people of Israel who would desire the day of the Lord. It is important to put this phrase into context. In the Old Testament the same phrase “day of the Lord” is used by other prophets. For example, let’s look at another prophecy using this phrase. The holy prophet Joel speaks of the day of the Lord in chapter 2:31, and while it is a dire situation with the moon turning to blood, the day of the Lord is a day that ultimately brings about salvation for all who call upon the name of the Lord, as can be seen in the next verse (2:32). Leading to the days of the New Testament, Jews and Christians tended to look at the day of the Lord as a day when God would come to first judge but the end outcome of this day is that he would rescue his people and bring about salvation. For example, Acts 2:16-24 shows that the prophecies of Joel here about the day of the Lord are really fulfilled at the feast of Pentecost. Nevertheless it’s clear from our passage today that Amos does not share their optimism, at least not at first. This is why he questions why someone would desire the day of the Lord. He tells the Israelites and us that it is an experience of darkness and terror. He wants people to understand that yes God will bring salvation when one is on his side, but this will not be deliverance just because they are Israel. After all, the passages of judgment on the other nations are not as much of a focus after the first 2 chapters. Do the people of Israel not hear how much he has said? Do we only look to others and consider their sins and not our own? This turn to fear the day of the Lord reminds me of the prayer of Saint Ephrem when we ask God to “let us see our own sins and not judge our brothers and sisters”. Amos is saying that if the people of Israel experienced the day of the Lord in this season of disobedience, they ought to be in fear. Amos substantiates the cry of “Woe” to those who would desire the day of the Lord by stating in the following verses that it is darkness, as if a man fled from a lion and a bear met him, or went into a house and leaned his hand against a wall and a serpent bit him. It is ultimately a day of darkness and gloom.
Now let’s read the next two verses to see how the prophecy continues. In verse 21 Amos turns to not the day of the Lord per se but to the experience of the people of Israel as spiritual people, and gives God’s assessment of their piety. In verse 21 God states that He despises the feasts of the people of Israel, nor does he have delight in their solemn assemblies. In verse 22 it is stark: the people of Israel may offer burnt, grain or peace offerings, and yet God says that these will not be accepted. Their fattened animals offered to him will likewise not be accepted. Keep in mind: this is quite different on its surface from the previous condemnations such as those in chapter 2. There the crimes of Israel are listed as selling people into slavery, trampling the heads of the weak, men taking part in prostitution, and offering wine to false gods. Here, God’s displeasure extends even to their religious celebrations to him. He does not want to receive their sacrifice because things are so upside down. Having God come to them in the Day of the Lord is considered a bad idea, and offering prayers up to God is likewise a bad idea. What is it that God wants from them?
Amos offers a prescription to remove God’s disapproval of Israel, and it is found in the last two verses. In verse 23 Israel is told to take away all of their songs and melodies on their harps, because God will not listen. They have lived sinfully and tried to remain in the status quo by offering God sacrifices. Amos first wants them to stop the status quo. Things have gotten so off course that something new is needed. What is needed? Silence? Perhaps. More importantly, the request from God sent through Amos to the people of Israel in verse 24 is that they need to “let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” Let’s reflect on that.
Here at the close of our passage we hear a beautifully profound statement about what Israel needs. Many sins have been enumerated thus far, and yet in a real sense what is needed is living out the beautiful vocation of verse 24, where justice runs down and righteousness is like an ever-flowing stream. I think that the people to whom Amos speaks are being called to get rid of their noise and melody, to make room for justice to flow as the water, and righteousness as a flowing stream. The people of God are being told that despite all of their sins in the way, their religious offerings are not what they need. Justice and righteousness are the solution. This passage applied to us should show us that the Church should operate from a position of mercy and grace in its quest for righteousness and justice, as they flow just like the waters of a stream.
At this point you may feel good about Amos’ prophetic vision. There is hope through living according to the truth. But if we keep reading, we will hear about exile and doom all the way until the last chapter. We’ll get there in future weeks but for now I want to go back to the beginning. How do we feel about all of these condemnations and judgments such that there is a fear of the day of the Lord? I think one important solution to consider comes to us from our Eastern Christian Fathers.
The Syriac holy father Isaac (aka Isaac of Nineveh) had this to say about hell and the torment of sinners. In one of his ascetical homilies he states the following beautiful passage that we should meditate upon: “I also maintain that those who are punished in Gehenna are scourged by the scourge of love. For what is so bitter and vehement as the punishment of love? I mean that those who have become conscious that they have sinned against love suffer greater torment from this than from any fear of punishment. For the sorrow caused in the heart by sin against love is sharper than any torment that can be. It would be improper for a man to think that sinners in Gehenna are deprived of the love of God. Love is the offspring of knowledge of the truth which, as is commonly confessed, is given to all. The power of love works in two ways: it torments those who have played the fool, even as happens here when a friend suffers from a friend; but it becomes a source of joy for those who have observed its duties. Thus I say that this is the torment of Gehenna: bitter regret. But love inebriates the souls of the sons of Heaven by its delectability.” (I.28, p. 266)
In many ways, as we journey through the Prophets we can feel as though God is harsh. After all, many wrongly speak of an Old Testament God who is put alongside to contrast with some sort of separate New Testament God. Perhaps a key way to look beyond that perspective is to remember what St. Isaac said. God’s presence, His day, can be our very salvation. But it can also be a “woe” to us when we are oriented away from seeing God’s goodness as good. St. Isaac shows that the torment of hell (or Gehenna in Greek) is God’s love that they regret being separated from. Therefore, we can understand that God is still loving even as he utters some of the harshest judgments.
I hope this helps you not only understand passages like these, but also helps you think of how God who is love can be the same God in the days of these passages down to today. Second, what about us? Do we sometimes justify our own anger and punishment of others as being godly when really the deeper truth is one of a lack of that righteousness and justice that flow as do streams? When we see those whom we esteem as the most sinful, do we pray that they move away from injustice and unrighteousness not by a punishment, but by opening their eyes to see that God’s love is given to everyone? May we all regret the ways that we are disconnected from God’s love and leave a life of punishment, to those refreshing streams that can pour out of our own hearts just as they are called for in this prophecy of Amos. Glory to Jesus Christ!